“Is veganism compatible with anti-natalism?”

Anti-natalism is the belief that birth has a negative moral value, and that people should abstain from giving procreation on the basis that it is morally wrong. Various ethical reasons are offered for why this is the case, the most common being the loose agreement that humans cause or experience so much suffering that bringing them into the world just to suffer or make others suffer, is immoral. The ultimate goal of this, at least in many versions of the ideology, is for humans to cease to exist. This philosophy has been on the fringe of vegan spaces for quite some time, but has enjoyed a notable rise in popularity over the past couple of years.

Even those who have never come across this philosophy being espoused in vegan spaces may immediately recognise why it may be an appealing ideology for vegans. Misanthropy is fairly common in social justice spaces generally and veganism is really no different in that regard, and it is likely that we are all familiar  vegan who thinks that humans are irredeemably awful as a result of our general treatment of non-human animals. If the goal is to reduce harm and humans cause harm or are harmed by being born, then not conceiving any more humans seems to be a fairly logical conclusion.

Veganism has always been closely linked with environmentalism, and the idea that there are too many humans or that humans are a negative force in the world and therefore making more of us is morally wrong, appeals to many environmentalists who are convinced by notion of human overpopulation. For vegans, the argument may be particularly appealing. If we oppose the breeding of non-human animals because they are overpopulated and many need adoption, why do we not do the same for human animals? However, similar to how overpopulation environmentalism can too often lead to eco-fascism, anti-natalism is not a harmless ideology either.

It is necessary first to draw a line here, between a philosophy and set of beliefs held as a personal belief system, and an ideology that is put into practice in our politics and our wider lives. If an individual holds the personal philosophy that giving birth is wrong and so chooses not to conceive children then it’s hard to object to that – their bodily autonomy is their own and they are entitled to their own beliefs. There are many legitimate reasons why a person would think it is more moral for them not to have children, for example, the moral obligation to adopt instead of produce offspring when so many children need a home.

However, it must also be recognised that ideologies almost never remain personal – they are almost always put into practice in the world, however peacefully. Anti-natalism, similarly, seldom stops with just the personal belief that you should not give birth because birth has a negative value. In deciding that giving birth is morally wrong, I decide not only for myself, but everyone else as well – I am not saying that it is wrong only for me. There is a great deal of difference between deciding it would be wrong for me to have children, and deciding it is unethical for everyone else, too.

The real problems with anti-natalism as a philosphy begin to emerge, when we attempt to impose it on others or even just advocate it. It must be recognised that any time any sort of child reduction policy has been put into effect anywhere in the world, it has always disproportionately impacted disabled people, women, people or colour and poor people. Those with privilege based on race, class and particularly wealth, are always better equipped to avoid social control, and so the burden of a population reduction program are never equally felt among the population. From an environmental standpoint this is particularly problematic, since the rich in general have a far higher environmental impact than the poor.

The conclusion of anti-natalism is essentially a phased extinction of all human life, after all, if birth has a negative value then no one should be giving birth, not just anti-natalists. This is an even bigger issue for anti-natalists, as anyone who believes that the social ills of a phased extinction would be equally felt among different classes and different countries are either incredibly naïve or just refusing to see a glaring hole in their philosophy. Even Benetar (the thinker who popularised anti-natalism) had no real answer for this question.

It cannot be denied that a final generation and the generations leading up to it would be subject to profound suffering on a scale we can barely even conceive of. Food shortages, the breakdown of law and order, mob rule, riots most likely, and a complete disintegration of society as we know it. There may be no suffering after they are gone because nobody capable of suffering would exist (ignoring non-human animals), yet that still fails to take into account the enormous amount of suffering required to get to that point.

Not only would that suffering be unequally distributed, it’s causes are not equal either. Anti-natalism posits that humans are bad, they suffer and cause suffering, therefore birth has a negative value, with no differentiation at all between different humans living in radically different ways. It is again just wildly socially ignorant to pretend that all humans are guilty of (or even capable of) inflicting suffering on anywhere near the same scale. I can go out on a killing spree, but I can’t inflict institutional violence against an entire population in the way that billionaires or dictators do.

Our lifestyles as average consumers causes harm to the earth, but we cannot reasonably put working consumers and the board of Exxon in the same category and just wipe them both out because ‘humans are bad.’ The whole idea is incredibly western and consumer-centric, too. There are plenty of humans, including indigenous societies, hermits and off-the-grid communities who have been living happy, ecologically successful lives for generations, why should they suffer for the sins of everybody else? Who is going to tell them to stop reproducing? The military?

This leads us into the other troubling aspect of the philosophy, since as soon as we start saying ‘fewer humans should be born’ we are also asking the questions: ‘Where do we start?” and:  “Which humans shouldn’t be born?’ That line of thinking is dangerous, and we’ve seen where it leads throughout human history. It invites questions of which human lives are worth more than others, why, and what we could do about that. T

his is why anti-natalism has been taken on as something of a dog-whistle by quite so many racists and eco-fascists. If we instead say ‘no humans should be born’ then we’ve at least escaped that issue, but the result is no less horrifying. Are we prepared to police the reproductive systems of literally everyone on earth? Who enforces it on those who don’t agree with it? In what manner and by what right?

The only way to avoid these glaring flaws is to declare that no, you would never seek to enforce anti-natalism on anyone else or even advocate it to others, which again is completely fine. An individual who does not want to have children since they think humans are a negative influence in the world is doing no harm, and perhaps will even do some good by adopting children as a result of their beliefs. This takes the ‘teeth’ out of the ideology, but also takes away one of it’s central tenets.

Those who promote anti-natalism are clear, the position is not that they should not have children, it is that humans should not have children, and it is hard to claim a belief is only personal if it applies to all humans. If the goal is simply to advocate anti-natalism rather than enforce it, what do people imagine is the logical conclusion of convincing large numbers of people of the ideology of anti-natalism, if not for it to gain a political platform, inspire social change and to seek legislative change?

Anti-natalism can be a tempting ideology for vegans for many reasons, but it is an ideology which should be approached with a great deal more caution than it usually is, and we should encourage wider discussion of the questions that have been left unanswered by it’s advocates. Many other beliefs can be folded into a vegan ideology, and the argument here is not that veganism is incompatible with anti-natalism, but that anti-natalism as a philosophy has some implications which many vegans would find troubling.

“Why are animal products subsidised by taxes?”

This is quite a complex issue and it requires some historical context before we can really go into our modern system. In the 1920′s, Farm production had spiked as farms ramped up to feed war-ravaged Europe, including American farms. By the 1930′s farms were producing so much food though, that it drove the price of crops, particularly corn, so low that it became almost worthless. This was a tricky situation for the government, since it was them who had convinced farmers to up their production in the first place, and it was causing many farmers to lose their farms.

To try and deal with this, the government convinced farmers to leave some of their land unplanted, “paid-land diversion”, often by supporting a set minimum price that they would expect to earn from it, called “minimum price supports”. But what began as a temporary stimulus became permanent, and since feed crops for livestock were so heavily subsidised, it made meat and dairy affordable for even poor people, pretty much for the first time. The advent of factory farming and the ability to raise and kill animals on an industrial scale made it even cheaper. Subsidies have evolved a bit since then, from “insurance” on potential crops grown to other versions of landholder grants.

Fast forward a few decades and the meat and dairy industry has grown rich, meaning they have an extremely powerful political lobby able to resist any potential cut to their subsidies, and to influence people to continue buying even against health warnings. People in Europe and America have also become accustomed to being able to afford meat due to the subsidies, and it would be a brave government indeed who would cut those, as it would likely increase prices at least three-fold. As it often does, history is now repeating itself, the corn surplus of the 1930′s is exactly what we are seeing again, except this time with dairy.

Farms are producing more than people want to buy, which is driving down the price, and farmers are therefore asking for further subsidies, which again would be a temporary stimulus that would only solve the problem on a temporary basis. It’s basically what happens when the government steps in to disrupt market supply and demand, allowing farmers to produce a particular commodity at the same level of supply, despite a reduction of demand. You don’t have to be an economist to understand why this is a terrible idea.

In terms of how this works in practice, America is a particularly stark example. American farm subsidies take up $20 billion a year from taxpayers’ money, you can find a table below of how this is distributed:

The temptation is to write this off as a problem with America specifically, as the  nation with the highest consumption of animal products per person, but this is an issue all over the developed world. In the EU for example, The Common Agricultural Policy which is the EU system of farm subsidies, takes up €53 billion a year, a full 40% of the EU’s entire budget. We can see from the table below how this money is distributed:

This system is now so bloated and absurd, that as a farmer you don’t even need to produce anything to receive subsidies. According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2007 and 2011, the US government paid  $3m in subsidies to farms where no food was produced. Between 2008 and 2012, $10.6m was paid to farmers who had been dead for over a year. This system, in a country where millions live below the poverty line, is utterly immoral.

This is not just of ethics though, it is also highly dangerous for health. The Chairman of The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Health, Dr. Neal Barnard said: “As a physician, I urge you to shut down federal programs that pump billions of dollars into direct and indirect subsidies for meat, sugar, and other unhealthy products that are feeding record levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health problems that kill and disable millions of Americans every year. Most taxpayers have no idea that they subsidise unhealthy foods.”   It is estimated that because of these factors and the impact of animal products on food security, global health and climate change, the world going vegan would save approximately 8.1 million human lives per year.

Countries all over the developed world are diverting eye-watering sums of tax payer money to subsidise an industry which is quite literally killing it’s people. If we subsided fresh fruits and vegetables in place of animal products, they would be extremely cheap and accessible to everyone, and if those crops being fed to farmed animals were instead fed to humans, we would add an addition 70% to the world’s food supply.

The hope is, that as veganism becomes more popular and demand for animal products goes down, governments will be forced to acknowledge that it is not sustainable to subsidise an industry which it’s population no longer support. We are already seeing a shift in this, with dairy farmers moving to plant based milks as a way to make more money, and companies like Tyson reporting profit losses. In the meantime, there is a growing resistance to the corruption of farm subsidies, and as well as boycotting animal products, pressuring your local government representatives to act will at the very least show them that public awareness of this issue is growing, and that we do not support the way our money is being used.

“Would veganism solve world hunger?”

This is a claim I see batted around quite often, and while there is a good and rational basis behind it I think it grossly oversimplifies the issue of world hunger. What people making this argument are failing to understand is that solving world hunger isn’t just an issue of producing more food, though that is obviously a large part of it, people go hungry because of food waste and unequal distribution far more than because we don’t have enough to feed everyone.

The basis of this claim is that we could feed considerably more people if we grow crops to feed humans than we currently do raising animals for food, which is indisputably true. It is widely believed that food production must increase by 70% to feed the growing world population. We already produce more than enough food to feed our population of approximately 7.8 billion, yet we feed 36% of our crop production to farmed animals, a full three-quarters of which is wasted due to how inefficiently animals convert crops into meat and dairy. Beef is perhaps the starkest example, with 1 pound of beef requiring 6-8 pounds of feed. An estimated 86% of the grain used to feed cattle is unfit for human consumption, but the 14% alone represents enough food to feed millions of people.

Despite how often it is claimed, it is untrue that farmed animals only consume crops which are inedible to humans, since it is estimated that 1kg of meat requires at least 2.8kg of human-edible crops. The land use of livestock is so large because it takes around 100 times as much land to produce a kilocalorie of beef or lamb versus plant-based alternatives. Similarly, it takes almost 100 times as much land to produce a gram of protein from beef or lamb, versus peas or tofu. Much of the land devoted to grow crops like alfalfa exclusively for animal feed, could also be far better used to feed millions of humans.

It is estimated that because of these factors and the impact of animal products on food security, global health and climate change, the world going vegan would save approximately 8.1 million human lives per year. As positive as all of this is, the idea that it would completely solve global hunger is a very different claim. The fact of the matter is that we already grow more than enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t distribute it equally or use it efficiently.

Globally, roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption every year, which is approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, goes uneaten due to loss or wastage, though some figures place it closer to half. Add that to the fact of global market forces and capitalism meaning that food is unequally distributed, having enough of it for everyone unfortunately doesn’t mean that everyone gets to eat.

It is very understandable why people might look at the statistics for how much more efficient plant protein is than animal protein per square foot of land and conclude that the world going vegan would solve global hunger, but advocating veganism alone as a way to solve this issue risks causing people to stop advocating for any other cause. The truth is that the systemic evils of unfair distribution need to be rallied against across the political spectrum, companies need to be pressured to donate waste and countries need to be encouraged to pass legislation for better distribution, that is in the absence of some global revolution and massive redistribution of wealth; but solely advocating veganism will achieve none of that.

A global shift away from animal agriculture and towards sustainable, plant based eating would undeniably have drastic benefits for human health, global good security, the alleviation of poverty and the environment, which is why even the United Nations have advocating it. However, veganism needs to be part of a wider movement pushing for social change and equality for both humans and animals, and it is simply too much to expect veganism alone to solve all of the world’s problems.